What is the future role of the telco? From the many conversations I’ve had with people in the industry, it is clear that the telcos would rather not be just a “bit pipe”, though it has to be said that there’s plenty of money to be made in pipes, so long as you have many of them and pump a lot through. Bit transportation does not generate a lot of revenue by itself, and the presence of pipes does not necessarily encourage people to fill them. I believe one possible bright future for telcos lies in being intermediaries to manage the delivery of high-value bits.

Take, for example, the telco’s position as a “trusted” party. They are already facilitating e-commerce by providing a micro-payment solution via premium SMS. Could this also be extended to providing managed access to sensitive information within commercial interaction? A telco is often in the position to verify the consumer’s identity and provide related information such as postal address, age and location. With the telco as a trusted intermediary, one could order and pay for a product on-line and have it delivered to your home at a time when you are actually there, and all without revealing your bank details or address to the vendor, or your purchasing details to the delivery company.

How would this work? The vendor would be assured of payment because it had been confirmed by the telco (who already has a commercial relationship with the purchaser). The delivery address would be given to the delivery company, again by the telco, and that delivery company would receive notification of delivery based on the presence of the purchaser (who might receive an SMS/IM only when at home to ask if the delivery can be made at that time).

You might think: “but surely the vendor needs to know the purchaser’s home address, e.g. for warranty purposes?” When you think about it, the answer is no. The vendor only needs a means of contacting the purchaser if necessary (e.g. for product recall or servicing) or for verification of identity if the purchaser contacts the vendor later. Obviously the telco can be an intermediary for these functions too.

This might be seen as identity masking, or virtual identity, which would probably be a good thing now that we all know how important our identity is to us.

So the telcos can facilitate transactions involving both physical and digital goods, and in the latter they can also do the actual delivery. They can also safely extend the boundaries of our personal identities and real-time state without compromising our precious privacy. How many times have you received an SMS/IM while already busy on a voice call? Surely some joined-up-thinking would ensure that such messages would only be delivered when you are ready to accept them, in the right part of the world or time-zone to do something about the messages, and via a technical means at your disposal?

The telcos can also be our digital couriers and ambassadors without us even being aware of them. I have a phone with a camera. I can take a photo and send it to somebody, and I do this because my operator provides the delivery service for which I pay a reasonable fee. But suppose I find an irresistible high-end camera that can transmit photos via another mobile operator. Now I have a problem. I want the service of both these devices, but I don’t want to have two separate data plans with separate operators.

Enter another form of intermediary: an intermediary MVNO. Imagine now that the camera has an embedded SIM for operator X (which may or may not be my current service provider). I pay the MVNO for all my data services, who then pays my current operator for whatever services I use on my phone, and also pays operator X for whatever data services I use via my high-end camera. Everybody is happy. I am happy because I now have a fancy connected camera. My operator is happy because I am still using my phone. Operator X is happy, because I am using more data services and they are being paid for it. And the camera manufacturer is happy because I bought a camera.

Later I buy some connected gadget to provide secure tracking of my car in case it is stolen. This time it is operator Y providing the service, and I am now paying the MVNO a little bit extra because I’ve once again increased my use of mobile data.

The role of the MVNO in this scenario is part of the picture I am seeing for Telco 2.0, and the thoughts were stimulated by a Telco 2.0 event to which I was invited at which Martin Geddes and Norman Lewis were speaking. It certainly made me think about the real benefits of being in the middle of the action.

Mind you, there’s one type of intermediary that can be a source of problems, but I’ll speak of that later.

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